2011 UK Airshows

MAY 26 2011
Airshows >> UK: Duxford Spring Air Show - Celebrating Women in Aviation - Review

Here we are again: the first Duxford airshow of the 2011 season. The theme: a celebration of women in aviation. We've been in this boat before at Duxford, back in 2001, and on that occasion the celebration was a more muted affair with Anna Walker and Carolyn Grace being the sole representatives of 'women in aviation'.

Historically, some of Duxford's smaller scale themes have relied heavily on the local population to fill the ranks; drawing on events from the last decade, the 'Spies and Spy Planes Air Show' in October 2002 saw the Westland Lysander playing a key role as the sole "spy plane" on the programme that afternoon.

More recently, an 'Aircraft in the Movies Air Show' drew heavily on the usual Spitfires and Mustangs one has come to expect to see at Duxford without really looking beyond the norm to produce something more unique. That isn't to say that the Imperial War Museum hasn't organised some excellent themed airshows; there has certainly been a marked improvement in that respect after a lull in the early-to-mid-2000s. Anyway, I digress.

It was pleasing, therefore, that the Spring Air Show 2011 offered a far broader representation of female aviators, spanning a host of aviation genres including the modern military, aerobatics, wing-walking, vintage aircraft, warbirds and even hang gliding, with some 17 women due to take part in Duxford's flying programme.

This made for a nicely varied line-up, with some interesting and hitherto unseen aircraft and 'acts' joining the usual appealing mix of Duxford favourites. One of the drawbacks of the theme was that many of the aircraft involved in the 'women in aviation' segment of the flying programme were lighter types, many of them vintage, which require relatively calm conditions to be able to safely get airborne.

Unfortunately - continuing a worrying trend for 2011! - such conditions were not on hand on Sunday 22nd May. While the day dawned breezy but sunny (indeed, when I first arrived on the airfield shortly after 7.30am, there was not a cloud in the sky), the winds gradually built to the point where it was actually quite uncomfortable to face into wind!

This made the flying programme a bit of a moveable feast, with the constant, strong winds grounding many of the lighter types, including the Bucker Jungmann, Chilton DW1, Hawker Nimrod duo, Percival Prentice, Piper L-4 Cub, Ryan PT-22, Vans RV-6A, Dragon Rapide, U2 hang glider and Dennis Neville's Flying Circus. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were also kept firmly on the deck at RAF Coningsby.

Not an insignificant dent in the programme, then. However, to Duxford's credit a number of replacements were sourced from the locally based operators, whose warbirds are able to withstand harsher conditions than the more fragile inter-war aircraft that made up the bulk of the cancellations. Undoubted highlight of the replacements drafted in to fill up the programme was The Fighter Collection's sublime Curtiss P-40B Warhawk, making its first public display appearance since October 2008 in the very capable hands of TFC chief pilot Pete Kynsey.

The Warhawk both looks and sounds the part and it really was great to see it being put through its paces in a full aerobatic routine for the first time at a Duxford airshow. I look forward to the prospect of seeing three P-40s at Flying Legends, with the imminent arrival of TFC's Merlin engine P-40F variant.

Another welcome return to the circuit after an absence of more than two and a half years was TFC's Curtiss Hawk 75. This stocky French fighter is a popular mount for TFC boss Stephen Grey, who appeared to be having the time of his life in the Hawk. The Hawk may lack the almost art deco elegance of the P-40B, but it has its own charisma courtesy of its pitbull grunt.

Further warbird content was provided by the Aircraft Restoration Company and the Historic Aircraft Collection, with John Romain piloting ARC's Hispano HA-1112 Buchon concurrently with Dave Harvey in HAC's Hawker Hurricane XII. Having had a year of Battle of Britain era 'mock dogfights' last season, I was glad to see the Buchon and Hurricane flying individual, simultaneous solo displays that allowed for a more dynamic presentation of these two classic fighters that kept the sky busy throughout their display slot.

Replacing the Royal Navy Historic Flight's Fairey Swordfish, which had been bumped to the static display as the airshow weekend approached, was another public display debut, this time in the form of the Naval Aviation Ltd Hawker Sea Fury T.20, flown by Chris Gotke. That Bristol Centaurus engine sounds positively Heavenly!

Keeping the end up for the present day Royal Navy were the Black Cats Lynx duo, whose formation, opposition and 'synchro' routine continues to impress. I watched their practice display on Saturday afternoon from crowd centre and it is unquestionably a brilliant routine for the spectators at the centre point of the display line.

However, those on the fringes of the crowd are distant from the action and the impact of their crosses and low altitude mirror sequences is lost. Indeed, on Sunday only one half of the team came close to the crowd at the western end of the airfield, and only on a couple of occasions. The nature and structure of their routine is very much crowd-centric, which works tremendously for those in the 'right' position to see it, but for those who are off-centre, it's a different story.

Another substitute act, on this occasion making their Duxford debut, were the RV-8tors duo flown by Andy Hill and the Old Flying Machine Company's Alister Kay. This was the first time I'd seen the highly watchable, smooth as silk RV-8tors in action and I was very impressed with their sequence of close formation aerobatics; I can imagine them being a real highlight at smaller venues. Indeed, it is good to see them getting out and about more this year, after a slow start last season.

Alister Kay would return later in the flying display, where he took to the air in P-51D Mustang 'Ferocious Frankie' as one half of the OFMC pair, led by Brian Smith in the Spitfire MkIX. The OFMC pair's close formation aerobatics and big, sweeping loops brought back fond memories of the legendary Breitling Fighters displays.

On the heavier end of the warbird spectrum and in complete contrast to the many 1930s and '40s fighters on the programme was an impressive showing by the Duxford-based Catalina, an aircraft I'll never tire of watching.

The portion of the display dedicated to the celebration of women in aviation had been downsized considerably, with the winds putting paid to the planned 'flutterby' and solo displays of the various general aviation and vintage aircraft assembled.

However, the less-than-ideal conditions didn't prevent the contributions of several pilots, with Polly Vacher, making her first public solo display in her Piper Archer, Diana Britten putting on a precise exhibition of aerobatics in her Cap 232, Zan Blundell flying a fetching black and gold Yak 52 and Tizi Hodson displaying the Slingsby T-67 Firefly - though the latter suffered as the aircraft drifted well to the south-east of the airfield. As technically proficient and well-flown as the display was, it was just too distant to make much of an impact.

The same could be said of several of the lighter aircraft displays, though this shouldn't be taken in any way as a criticism of the pilots' skill and the quality of their routines; it's a simple, unfortunate fact that aircraft of this nature are easily 'lost', for lack of a better word, at anything other than the country's smaller venues. In contrast, bringing bags of impact and raucous noise were the Breitling Wingwalkers, who seem to display whatever the weather.

I've seen them being lashed in heavy downpours, melting under the hottest midday sun and now, taking the brunt of the gustiest conditions at an airshow in recent memory head on! They really are the champions of the British airshow scene and if anything, they deserve even more plaudits than they already receive.

Rounding off an impressive warbird quota and bringing to a close the 'women in aviation' themed flying display was the marquee pairing of Carolyn Grace in her Spitfire TIX and Anna Walker in Kennet Aviation's Seafire MkXVII. Opening the penultimate slot in the programme, the Spitfire and Seafire made one formation pass before breaking into their individual routines, enjoying the slightly calmer conditions (I suppose "calmer" may be a bit of a stretch!) that the late afternoon brought.

The Grace and Walker duet brought the 'women in aviation' theme firmly back into play, setting the stage for Flt Lt Juliette Fleming to bring the curtain down on the Spring Air Show in fine style in the Royal Air Force Hawk T.1.

While the specially painted display Hawk wasn't ready for Duxford, Flt Lt Dan Hayes' quite awesome silver and blue Tucano T.1 display ship was making its public debut. I'm of the opinion that the Tucano's ode to the Central Flying School is up there with the best of the custom RAF paint jobs and Flt Lt Hayes' routine does well to show off every aspect of the scheme.

Adding further flavour to an already varied flying programme was the terrific return of the Air Atlantique Classic Flight's Gloster Meteor NF.11, enjoying some of the finest weather of the day (from a ceiling perspective) that Dan Griffith exploited to stunning effect.

The Meteor is simply a beautiful classic jet and it's been far too long since this aircraft was last seen at Duxford; Dan's display, combining sweeping high speed aerobatics with lower power passes, was a delight to watch and a definite high point of the day.

The only other classic jet display at the Spring Airshow was provided by Cliff Spink in the Meteor's American contemporary, the F-86A Sabre, owned by Golden Apple and operated by ARC at Duxford. The Sabre has long been an immensely popular participant at UK and European airshows, dating back to its tenure with OFMC in the 1990s, and it's saddening to think that it may soon leave the UK (the Sabre is currently for sale - anyone with a spare $1,000,000 hidden under the sofa may wish to make some enquiries...).

In all then, a good start to Duxford's year. It wasn't a "classic" show, but then, I suspect the IWM will deliver on that front with its Spitfire 75th anniversary show in September. There was an interesting mix of aircraft, some superb flying, lovely aircraft and a number of debuts and comebacks, all of which helped make the Spring Airshow a thoroughly enjoyable affair.

It seemed to me that crowd numbers were down - the 'tank bank' in particular was strangely quiet - perhaps owing to the lack of any big general public draws like the Red Arrows, Typhoon or massed Spitfires (to use last September's sell out airshow as an example). People nowadays are looking for justification to attend events as costly as these, and with a question mark hanging over the weekend's forecast, it isn't surprising that some decided that the costs associated with taking the risk weren't worthwhile.

I do, however, have to question whether, in 2011 when there are women serving in frontline squadrons and the gender barriers are being torn down in all walks of life, there is really a need to marvel at how women can fly with equal skill to their male colleagues, but perhaps I'm not viewing it all in the manner intended... That said, the 'women in aviation' premise necessitated a change from the norm insofar as participation is concerned and the IWM did a sterling job in doing the theme justice.

Credit must also be given to commentator Ben Dunnell for drawing on the historical context of women's contributions to aviation past and present, providing refreshing insight without overloading the crowd with facts and figures. As a celebration of the historic achievements of female aviators in blazing the trail for those flying today, the thematic element of Duxford's Spring Air Show 2011 certainly delivered.

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